Group work is often the most memorable and transformative learning experience for students at university. The ability to work in groups or teams is rewarding and enriching – yet, students often voice concerns. These concerns can range from lack of accountability and unreasonable workload, to unfair assessment of group assignments. The complaints highlight the challenges of doing group work. They also point to the need to manage student expectations and to explain what group work is all about – especially the larger public purposes (telos) underpinning group work.

Academics have a responsibility to ensure that students understand the purpose and often normative expectations of a particular group work activity to avoid communication breakdowns. Like all learning opportunities, group work is not the same experience for everyone. The potentially strong impact that group work at university can have on students and their future way of learning and working with others should not be underestimated.

At UTS, we champion group work through practice-oriented approaches as part of the UTS Model of Learning, and active and collaborative learning as part of the learning.futures cycle. It amplifies social and participatory learning, which is the type of learning needed to tackle contemporary, complex problems as collaborators in their professions.

What do we learn from group work?

Group work can be a daunting experience for students and teachers because it is so different to lectures and tutorials. Learning in groups shifts the focus of learning from privileging individual learning to learning about, from and with others. Group work provides a learning opportunity about professional practice and is not limited to learning collective problem solving.

Learning in groups is different to learning from textbooks because it is collaborative, active, alive and social. Just imagine learning, working and living without the ability to listen, notice, empathise, respond and act with the individual, peers and the wider context in mind? It would be short-sighted, one-dimensional and unsustainable.

Group learning thrives and leads to new insights when conditions of respect, trust, diversity, inclusion, shared responsibility and participation are created and fostered. Students can also work to their strengths and expertise during group work or take on roles they normally may not naturally gravitate towards, such as leadership.

It can also help build connections and foster a shared sense of group agency – when it works well, individuals learn so much more than what they could have learnt alone. Group work is a strategy to develop as a person, future professional and global citizen. Ultimately, this is why we expose students to group work experiences during their university study.

Group work is a way of provoking new ideas and creating comprehensive solutions that one individual could not produce by themselves. The process is about cultivating the professional voice and developing a professional identity. It’s a useful scaffold to prepare graduates for working in professional teams, as the future of work (and research) requires professionals working together.

What are the roles of teachers and students in group work?

In group work, traditional roles are changing; the role of the expert teacher needs to shift to that of a group work facilitator. Being a content expert is part of group facilitation, but so many more skills are needed. Group learning is emergent which cannot be prescribed or controlled; it requires skilful guidance and active collaboration by students. The idea of students being rewarded for their individual efforts towards a group product does not fit, neither group learning nor group assessment.

What are we trying to achieve with group work? What makes for a meaningful group work experience? How might we draw from student experiences to enhance our group work practice?

In our new Group Work series of webinars, we will explore the what, why, when, where, and how of group work – there will be colleagues and students contributing. We will have 4 webinars in this series on Tuesdays 11.30am-12.30pm from August 25 to September 15. Register for our first webinar here:

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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